Intuitive Eating: An Anti-Diet Approach for Health

The concept of “Intuitive Eating” was coined in 1995 by Evelyn Tribole, a registered dietitian, and Elyse Resch, a nutrition therapist in their book by the same name. The concept: listen to your body for cues on what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat. While the concept is simple, it can be difficult to put into practice because we have so much telling us NOT to listen to our bodies. Intuitive eating may not be for everyone, but it can be incredibly liberating for those of us who have listened to years (if not decades) of gurus or magazines or blogs (or even medical doctors) on the “correct” ways to eat. 

There have been over 100 studies on Intuitive Eating that show health benefits including “increased well-being, lower risk of eating disorders” as well as increased self-esteem and body image.  Practicing intuitive eating can help you develop a healthy relationship with food, mind, and your body.

Tribole and Resch lay out 10 principles of Intuitive Eating:

1. Reject the Diet Mentality

Diet culture is rampant in our society. Its the voice in our heads (and in the media) that says we should be a certain body shape, and that if you’re not that shape then you have personally failed (ie. lack of willpower). The first step of intuitive eating requires us to fight back against that voice in our head that thinks “maybe this next diet will work.”

2. Honor Your Hunger

You need calories (energy) to function. Our bodies are incredible at letting us know when we’re hungry. We’ve just been taught to ignore our hunger cues for one reason or another (eg. you shouldn’t have time for lunch if you’re a “hard worker;” or you must eat 3 meals a day, or you shouldn’t eat after 6:00pm, etc.). Ignoring your hunger signals often leads to overeating.

3. Make Peace with Food

Tribole and Resch request that you “give yourself unconditional permission to eat.” Following the advice of your “shoulds” can lead to cravings. This step is all about eating those foods you’ve been avoiding or afraid of, and giving yourself permission to eat as much as your body asks you to. Once you’ve given yourself permission to eat those foods, often you find they’re not as enticing as your mind would have you believe (because they’re not taboo). And for the foods that you find you absolutely love, it can be freeing to be allowed to indulge and experience the joy of eating without guilt. 

4. Challenge the Food Police

The food police are the voices in your head (and in society) that implement shame and guilt to govern your eating habits. They are the ideas that suggest you’re “good” or “bad” for eating certain foods or even that certain foods are themselves inherently “good” or “bad.” Sometimes you just don’t have any interest in eating a salad, and what you need right now is a scoop of ice cream. Other times the reverse is true. Listening to your body can help you determine what you need to eat. 

5. Discover the Satisfaction Factor

Remember what it felt like to feel pleasure when you eat food? Think about how much you used to enjoy that chocolate pudding you ate in 1st grade during snack time. That’s the kind of pleasure we’re talking about! One of my favorite studies that Tribole and Resch mention in their book show that test subjects ate LESS of a milkshake when it was described as “rich” and “indulgent,” AND they found it more satisfying. This, in contrast to the test subjects who were given the same milkshake that was described as low-calorie. 

6. Feel Your Fullness

Mindfulness features heavily in this step. If you can slow down and eat food without distractions (eg. keep your phone in your pocket, don’t set your food up in front of the TV, etc.) you’re more likely to be attuned when your body says it’s satisfied. This is one of the harder steps for me, and so I take it as a win whenever I do this, rather than expecting perfection every time I eat.

7. Cope with Your Emotions with Kindness

Emotional eating is a fact of life in almost every culture. In the US, we celebrate birthdays with cake, we grieve heartbreak with icecream, not to mention all the holiday eating. This step reminds us not that we shouldn’t eat with our emotions, but that eating can be one of several ways we cope with our emotions. It can become unhealthy if we consistently rely on food to be our only coping mechanism, but this step helps us develop other ways to manage our emotions. 

8. Respect Your Body

You’re going to live in your body for the rest of your life. It might be time to start appreciating all the amazing things it does, rather than criticizing it for all of its perceived “shortcomings.” You deserve to love and be loved NO MATTER what your body looks like. 

9. Movement—Feel the Difference

Sometimes even just replacing the word “exercise” with “movement” can change your relationship to your body. You don’t have to sweat away in a gym to be happy. The goal here is to simply enjoy how your body feels, and movement can be an incredible way to access that. Maybe you love how your body feels after a sweaty workout, but also maybe what works for you is a leisurely stroll around your neighborhood, playing frisbee, or dancing in your kitchen.

10. Honor Your Health—Gentle Nutrition

Lastly (and they put this last for a reason!), paying attention to nutrition can help you feel good after meals. This can help you determine what kind of meal you want for the kind of day you’re expecting. For example, you may need extra carbs if you’re going to be active during the day, or extra protein to recover after a workout. There needs to be a balance between taste and health.